Ludwig Wittgenstein and Cambridge

Wittgenstein, Ludwig

Portrait of Wittgenstein (Moritz Nähr via Wikimedia Commons)

Earlier this summer I wrote a blog post about Erasmus, Calvin and Bucer in Cambridge. This set me thinking about other significant German speakers who spent time here and the first one to spring to mind was the influential philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951). In his lifetime he only had one book published, the highly significant Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, but he wrote a huge amount. His papers are held at the Wren Library, Trinity College; there is also a separate archive in Cambridge which holds facsimiles of his manuscripts.

With a background in the study of mechanical engineering, Wittgenstein had come to Britain from his native Austria in 1908 to work on aeronautics at the University of Manchester. However, his interest switched to the philosophy of mathematics and he arrived in Cambridge in 1911, keen to study under Bertrand Russell. He was in Cambridge for just two years; during that time he became close friends with David Pinsent, a maths undergraduate, whose diaries and letters give us a fascinating insight into this time: A portrait of Wittgenstein as a young man: from the diary of David Hume Pinsent 1912-1914 (184.c.99.28). As well as spending time together in Cambridge, the pair also travelled together, spending September 1912 in Iceland and September 1913 in Norway (Wittgenstein then proceeded to spend the following year in Norway).  Plans were in place for a third joint trip in 1914 but the outbreak of the First World War put paid to this. David Pinsent was killed in an aeroplane accident in May 1918 and the dedication in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, four years later, is “to the memory of my friend David H. Pinsent.”* Two substantial chapters of Wittgenstein: a life (young Ludwig 1889-1921) by Brian McGuinness (184.c.98.1325) are devoted to his student days in Cambridge. The letters he wrote to Bertrand Russell also shed light on this time (contained within Ludwig Wittgenstein: Cambridge letters184.c.99.1141).

Apart from a brief visit in summer 1925, it was not until 1929 that Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge. In the intervening years he had served in the Austrian army during the First World War followed by nine months in a prisoner of war camp in Italy. He then effectively withdrew from philosophy and spent a number of years teaching in remote Austrian villages.  It was during this time that his Tractatus was finally published.

On arrival in Cambridge in 1929 Wittgenstein first had to gain a Ph.D. (for which Tractatus was successfully submitted) to be allowed to work. He then became a lecturer, and in 1939, Professor of Philosophy. As well as the famous Blue and Brown books, based on lectures he gave during the 1930s, the UL also has these volumes:

  • Wittgenstein’s lectures, Cambridge, 1930-1932  from the notes of John King and Desmond Lee ; edited by Desmond Lee (Cam.c.980.36)
  • Wittgenstein’s lectures: Cambridge, 1932-1935 from the notes of Alice Ambrose and Margaret Macdonald edited by Alice Ambrose (9005.c.9269)
  • Wittgenstein’s Lectures on the foundations of mathematics, Cambridge, 1939 from the notes of R. G. Bosanquet, Norman Malcolm, Rush Rhees and Yorick Smythies (348:5.c.95.191)

One of the attendees of the 1939 lectures was Alan Turing. Another, Norman Malcolm, later wrote a memoir which is another useful source of details about Wittgenstein the man – Ludwig Wittgenstein: a memoir by Norman Malcolm (2001.8.6877). This volume also contains a biographical sketch by Georg Henrik von Wright who succeeded Wittgenstein as Cambridge professor of philosophy and letters which Wittgenstein wrote to Malcolm.

After his return in 1929, Wittgenstein spent much of the rest of his life in Cambridge, remaining as Professor until 1947, and taking British citizenship. During the Second World War he took time out to work at Guy’s Hospital in London as a porter. Wittgenstein in Cambridge : letters and documents 1911-1951  edited by Brian McGuinness (Cam.b.2012.1) is a comprehensive source if you are interested in finding out more about his time in Cambridge; it even includes minutes of meetings that he attended. For a more pictorial approach Ludwig Wittgenstein : sein Leben in Bildern und Texten (S180.b.98.1) provides an interesting slant.


Blue plaque on 76 Storey’s Way (Keith Edkins via Wikimedia Commons)

Wittgenstein spent the last few months of his life at 76 Storey’s Way, the home of his doctor. He is buried in Ascension Parish Burial Ground just off Huntingdon Road.

*David Pinsent’s younger sister was Hester Adrian after whom the Hester Adrian Centre here in Cambridge is named.

Katharine Dicks




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